When it comes to the back end of the roster, one of the big pre-season storylines has been the play of Charlie Villanueva, who has made a strong case for a spot on the team. Villanueva came into training camp ago as the longest of long shots, signed to an unguaranteed contract on a team that didn't have any open roster spots. After seeing his play decline in each of his five seasons with the Detroit Pistons, he posted career-low numbers across the board last season and looked like a guy whose time in the NBA was about up.
How did he get here?
Villanueva is best known for the huge contract he signed with the Pistons, a five year, $38 million deal that was widely mocked almost as soon as it was signed. Along with Ben Gordon, he became a symbol for the worst excesses of the Joe Dumars era in Detroit, one of many veterans who cashed their checks and then cashed out on a team that had been going nowhere for years. When his contract finally expired in 2014, the general mood in Detroit was that he shouldn't let the door hit him on his way out of town.
But while his reputation was at an all-time low among most fans, he still had several interested suitors in free agency, most notably the Mavs and the Clippers. Nothing in his stats said he was still an NBA-caliber player, but Charlie V has a few things going for him -- he is really tall (6'11, 240) and he has always been able to shoot the ball (career 34 percent from three). Guys with his skill-set can stick around forever, since they aren't going to get any shorter with age and you don't need athleticism to be a good shooter.
What happened to him in Detroit was really a perfect storm of factors. Not only was he dealing with several nagging injuries to his neck and his back, he never really had a settled role in the rotation, as the franchise stumbled from plan to plan without much direction. He had four different head coaches in his five seasons with the Pistons and none of them could make much out of the haphazard conglomeration of talent that Dumars had assembled. They had talent, but none of the pieces really fit together.
Villanueva's best season in the NBA came in his final season with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2009, when he was a prototype stretch 4 next to a defensive-minded center like Andrew Bogut who could cover for his deficiencies on that side of the floor as well as on the glass. The Bucks had a number of scorers who could take advantage of the space that Villanueva's shooting opened up and they had a pick-and-roll PG in Ramon Sessions who could deliver him the ball in the right spots for him to be effective.
By the end of his time in Detroit, he was stuck behind the ill-fitting combination of Josh Smith and Greg Monroe at power forward and playing with a shoot-first, shoot-second and shoot-third point guard in Brandon Jennings. While his shooting percentages plummeted without a consistent spot in the rotation, they weren't the product of a huge number of attempts -- Charlie V. played in 20 games and attempted only 56 threes all season. Since he always made his mark on the offensive side of the floor, that meant he had little chance to be productive.
That said, a stretch four who shoots only 25 percent from three in a season isn't a stretch four in any meaningful sense of the word, since the defense doesn't have to respect his shot. It's no surprise that Charlie V. ended up having to sign a contract without any guarantees, something that had never happened to him before in his nine-year NBA career. The days of Villanueva being an effective starter or even a guy you can count on a big role off your bench may have come and gone, but that doesn't mean he can't be helpful in certain situations.
Making the case
In six games with the Mavs in the pre-season, Villanueva has shown he can still do one thing effectively -- throw up a bunch of threes very quickly. He is taking 6.3 FGAs in only 10 minutes a game, 4.3 of them from behind the arc. Most importantly, he is knocking them down at a really good rate, shooting 42 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent from three. He's a pure shooter who can run off screens and catch-and-shoot really quickly, and if he isn't open, he can put the ball on the floor and attack a close-out.
In a best-case scenario, he can fill the role that was originally meant for Rashard Lewis, whom the Mavs had to let go after a physical revealed a pre-existing knee injury. Villanueva is the only stretch 4 on the roster besides Dirk and he gives the Mavs another option when it comes to spreading the floor from the front-court if either Dirk or Chandler Parsons has to sit out a game. Even if he makes the team, he almost certainly won't be in the rotation, but Rick Carlisle could find a few uses for him over the course of the season.
Of course, there are still plenty of negatives when it comes to Charlie V., the majority of them on the defensive end. Individual defense has never been his strong suit and he's neither strong enough to defend the post nor quick enough to chase guys around the three-point line. He is also averaging only 0.17 assists a game in the pre-season, which shows you his mentality when he is on the court. If Villanueva is in the game, he is throwing up shots as fast as he can, so you better hope he's making them.
Can he make enough of a case?
The Mavs have reportedly been shopping both Gal Mekel and Bernard James in the hopes of opening up a roster spot, presumably for a guy like Villanueva. His ability to make the team could ultimately be out of his control -- Raymond Felton's injury complicates the decision on Mekel, since their other backup point guard (Devin Harris) is expected to spend a large portion of the game at shooting guard. Similarly, if one of the other centers goes down with an injury in the next week, they may need to keep Sarge around in case of emergency.
Either way, Villanueva's play in the pre-season has shown that he still has the ability to help an NBA team, as 6'11 guys who can shoot like he can never go out of style. His play also shows the reasoning behind the Mavs' fondness for reclamation projects, with Felton being the most prominent example on the roster. No matter how bad a veteran plays in a given season, if they are still close to their athletic prime and they have shown the ability to produce at a high level in the past, it can't hurt to give them a shot.
Villanueva and Felton are still only 30 -- neither of them forgot how to play basketball in the last few seasons, although they may have gotten a bit lazy when it comes to keeping themselves in tip-top shape. Either way, they are really skilled basketball players with a ton of pride who don't want to leave the only professional league they have ever known and play overseas. If Charlie V doesn't end up working out, it won't cost the Mavs anything. And if he does help the team this season? Don't be too surprised.